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The recognition of the importance and the necessity of education for the development of society has become a significant achievement of the human civilization. Today, literacy rate as a major indicator of the education level is acknowledged as a crucial element of the development of a country. Promoting literacy in the form of the universal primary education is one of the goals of global cooperation in the 21st century. A specific issue in this area is adult illiteracy. Addressing the issue requires extensive measures from governments and non-government organizations on creating adult literacy programs. Such programs are challenging to develop and conduct due to various reasons, including the difficulties with defining literacy in the modern world, designing curricula, and determining the effects of literacy on different aspects of individuals’ lives. Adult illiteracy elimination programs should be designed with the considerations of functional literacy, women’s vulnerable illiteracy position, and addressing serious social issues in teaching materials.
The importance of literacy for the development is hard to overestimate. It comes from the recognition that positive social changes are driven by the educated people (Merriam & Brockett, 2011). Educated people learn how to contribute to the well-being of their communities, develop strategies, and implement them. Populations or their portions that have a low education level or limited access to education are vulnerable. Research shows that people in such populations or groups are exposed to various potentially harmful factors to a greater extent than those in more educated communities. Such factors may include poor health care, inadequate working and living conditions, higher mortality rates, and insufficient supply of resources (Duckworth & Ade-Ojo, 2015; Roman, 2004). Education is a broad concept encompassing many aspects of personal development, but its fundamental component is gaining information from written text. The ability to read, therefore, was historically acknowledged as the first step in education.
Along with the ability to read, literacy also includes the ability to write. In many modern societies, where these abilities are widespread and illiterates are rarely found, it may be hard to understand, but in those societies where illiteracy is still a daunting problem, being literate evidently has many advantages. Literates are capable of distant communication: in order to communicate something to someone, they do not have to have a chance to talk to the person face-to-face. They can preserve information, thus ensuring a continuous development of their communities by means of accumulating knowledge. They are capable of formal relations, i.e. they can sign agreements among each other, thus becoming subjects of legal rights. For these and various other reasons, a significant effort was made in many parts of the world to eliminate illiteracy in order to facilitate development.
Adult illiteracy elimination is an initiative aimed at educating adult illiterates in vulnerable or underprivileged communities. According to researchers, illiteracy in these communities does not only hinder their development but also creates risks for the quality of life in them (Auerbach, Barahona, Midy, Vaquerano, & Zambrano, 2013). Although communities, where illiteracy is normalized, may not regard it as a problem or take illiteracy elimination measures, objective analysis shows that they suffer from many adverse effects of low literacy rates. Providing them with external help such as adult illiteracy elimination programs has been deemed necessary by many countries.
There is an ongoing debate, however, on how adult illiteracy elimination programs should be designed. There are various considerations that include social, economic, political, and cultural factors. It is agreed upon among researchers that such programs should be thoroughly examined for the discourses contained in the content of their teaching materials to make sure that they not only effectively educate adults but also adequately and appropriately address the learners’ backgrounds. Literacy is seen as the foundation of education, but when it is needed to provide literacy education to adults who already have significant life experiences and may consider themselves educated in their own way, certain approaches to designing adult illiteracy elimination programs are required to ensure their effectiveness.
Three proposed approaches include redefining literacy towards modern social requirements, recognizing women as a vulnerable group among illiterates, and addressing social issues of given communities in educational materials. First of all, the necessity to redefine literacy has repeatedly been stressed by researchers and adult illiteracy elimination professionals. Literacy is commonly understood as the ability to read and write, and it has been treated as such in the history of illiteracy elimination (see Background). However, in the modern world, it is recommended to broaden the concept to include other skills and abilities, too (Ahmed, 2011; Billek-Sawhney & Reicherter, 2005; Roman, 2004; Wagner, 2011). Billek-Sawhney and Reicherter (2005) studied health illiteracy and argued that literacy should be redefined to encompass finding, estimating, understanding, and using information rather than merely being able to read and write.
When literacy is defined like this, it turns out that a very large number of people suffer from health illiteracy, which can adversely affect their treatment and rehabilitation. Roman (2004) states that illiterate people in most cases fail to recognize their illiteracy, as in the 1990s “[in the United States,] over 90% of adults who fall into the lowest levels of literacy [perceived] their abilities as sufficient or even above average” (p. 91). The situation is particularly daunting because some literacy promotion organizations claim that about 90 million people in the United States have limited literacy skills. It is suggested that, in the present-day world, literacy should be regarded as not only the ability to read written words but as well should include the notion of understanding them. The author uses the concept of “functional literacy” (Roman, 2004, p. 81), which is a shift from evaluating literacy as a technical skill to understanding it as the ability to function successfully within society.
The challenge of defining literacy as the ability to process information rather than to read and write is important for all modern-world literacy studies. Ahmed (2011) suggests to “recognise literacy as a continuum in the framework of lifelong learning” (p. 179). It means that literacy should not only include a number of basic skills but also knowledge that should be constantly updated. All this is needed to ensure a person’s basic education that allows him or her to meet the requirements of modern society. A literate person should be regarded as a person who is capable of effective social relations. Therefore, adult illiteracy elimination programs should adopt the notion of literacy as certain knowledge and skills enabling a person to be involved in social interactions with maximum benefits.
Second, adult illiteracy elimination should avoid gender-blindness by acknowledging women as a more vulnerable group of illiterates and designing educational programs accordingly. In certain societies with high illiteracy rates, women occupy an oppressed position, which results in their lowered access to education. Lower access to education signifies lower access to social interactions and decision-making (Kabeer & Natali, 2013). Wen (2003) studied the issue of illiteracy in China and found that women were the most vulnerable group among adult illiterates, as illiterate women constituted up to 31 percent of women in impoverished rural regions, which is almost a three times higher rate than that for men. Many societies with relatively high illiteracy rates where a significant lack of gender equality is observed display a similar disproportion. These data justify the recommendation to pay more attention to women in adult illiteracy elimination policies and practices.
What is meant by paying more attention is targeting in terms of adult illiteracy elimination programs’ reach and materials. When reaching audiences for their educational campaigns, educators should devise messages that are aimed at women specifically along with those aimed at men instead of devising gender-neutral ones. Materials should be composed to incorporate appeal to women. An important part of illiteracy elimination is communicating to targets the benefits of being literate, which provides them with the necessary motivation for learning. Communication of benefits should be gender-specific, too. It should be noted that it is not recommended to develop separate illiteracy elimination programs for men and women. Rather, it is proposed to recognize that women are deprived of benefits of education to a larger extent than men in many societies, which is why it is necessary to pursue reaching them with an additional effort to balance illiteracy elimination policies and practices instead of dismissing and ignoring the disproportion.
Finally, it is proposed to reflect important social issues in teaching materials. The recommendation is based on regarding teaching materials for illiteracy elimination as not only an educational source but also a valuable channel of communication with illiterates. The channel should not be abused, i.e. its primary goal should remain education, but the materials’ potential to bring positive social changes to underprivileged, vulnerable, and developing societies should be acknowledged. One of such changes is promoting gender equality. It was discussed above how women should be targeted by illiteracy elimination programs; further, it is proposed to address the issue of the position and role of women in given communities as part of the curricula.
Wen (2003) examined educational materials for illiteracy elimination programs in China from the gender perspective. The research contained a thorough analysis of teaching materials for gender characteristics such as the representation of women and messages to them. Particularly, it was recommended to address the issues of women’s occupational situation as well as their social position in impoverished rural areas in teaching materials. Kabeer and Natali (2013) explained the importance of addressing these issues by establishing the connection between literacy rates among women in a given society and economic growth. It was concluded that development is greatly facilitated by women education. One of the aspects of this facilitation is that educated women become more empowered on the household level, which increases the economic capabilities of households.
If teaching materials raise the issues of the social position of women, it will provoke discussions among learners, which will become an important part of their education as well as social development. It is important to realize that teaching materials are not used as propaganda tools but rather as encouragement for critical discussions. Auerbach et al. (2013) suggest that, within the illiteracy elimination programs’ framework, learners should address concerns from their everyday lives; as a result, “solutions come not from experts, but from group resources; by exchanging ideas and experiences, participants work together to develop ways of addressing problems” (p. 56). Such an approach will ensure that, along with literacy education, significant contributions are made in the well-being of the society.
The notion of literacy in the modern world is being redefined, which complicated the calculations of how many people there are who can be called literate. However, many people around the world are still illiterate in the most basic sense, i.e. they do not know how to read or write. The problem remains daunting in many countries. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), about 17 percent of adults around the world are illiterate, which is about 775 million people (Statistics on Literacy, 2016). It is noted by the UNESCO that two thirds of adult illiterates are women, which undermines gender equality efforts in communities with low literacy rates.
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This statistics is reliable because the UNESCO has been running literacy programs around the world for more than 65 years (Wagner, 2011). Despite limited financing, the organization has been dedicated to addressing illiteracy as a major challenge of global development. Much effort was put into research to prove that higher literacy rates greatly contribute to overall development. Wagner (2011) points out that the UNESCO’s approach to improving literacy has featured innovation and leadership-promoting initiatives that strengthened the organization’s position as the world’s leader in literacy programs.
The Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Program (LAMP) conducted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics was examined by Ahmed (2011) to estimate its tools, achievements, and particular cases of illiteracy elimination activities. It is stressed that the UNESCO regards literacy as “a continuous process that requires sustained learning and application” (Ahmed, 2011, p. 185), which shapes the literacy testing framework. The framework has excluded dichotomy and adopted a four-level model of literacy instead.
Ahmed (2011) argues that findings obtained through this model of literacy measurement “definitively present the status of literacy of the population and benchmarks for future efforts in literacy based on the application of scientific and objective research methods” (p. 191). However, many researchers argue in response that definitive methods of literacy assessment have not been achieved yet (Golbeck, Paschal, Jones, & Hsiao, 2011). A major complication is not even the difficulty to design tools, such as tests, capable of presenting reliable data on where within the literacy skills and knowledge range a respondent should be placed. Rather, the main difficulty is the disagreement among illiteracy elimination researchers and professionals on what the concept of literacy should encompass.
Therefore, existing statistical data on literacy are debatable. However, most researchers agree on two major points: there are still many people in the world who lack fundamental literacy skills, such as the abilities to read and write, and significant numbers of people in many countries, including developed ones, suffer from the lack of information processing and understanding skills, which can be referred to as a kind of illiteracy. Another controversial point in the field of literacy statistics is measuring the effects of illiteracy elimination programs. Various factors and circumstances should be considered in order to evaluate how people who have been given literacy education change their lifestyles and their communities. These considerations may include employment, self-employment, producing value, adopting more positive (e.g. less violent) practices, and others. However, there is also the challenge of establishing causation between illiteracy elimination and any positive change. Overall, it can be said that further research in needed to define key knowledge, skills, and abilities that a person should possess in order to perform successfully within society. After defining literacy this way, researchers should put effort into developing tools for measuring literacy, illiteracy elimination, and assessment of outcomes.
Ethics is an important part of adult education. Learners should be approached with respect and without violating their autonomy. Proposing solutions to designing adult illiteracy elimination programs should consider ethical outcomes. A major ethical consideration is cultural relativism. In a given situation, educators and learners may come from significantly different cultural backgrounds. Under these circumstances, educators should ensure that teaching materials and the framework of learning do not offend, insult, or disrespect illiteracy elimination programs participants. Otherwise, positive effects of learning may not be achieved.
A positive ethical outcome of proposed solutions will be bringing the culture of discussion and interactive learning to vulnerable groups of people. The ethical issue involved here is the principle of diversity. From the perspective of ethics, it is recognized that presenting various points of view is a favorable environment for coming up with optimal solutions. If literacy teaching materials bring up social issues, learners find themselves in a situation where they need to share their experiences, speculate on the issues, propose recommendations, and consider outcomes of proposed actions.
This framework is connected to ethical decision-making because, in ethics, there are principles and there are situations where some principles need to be violated in order to comply with other ones. Decision-making is based on thorough examination of possible outcomes. Another positive ethical outcome is expected from targeting women in illiteracy elimination programs. Such targeting will contribute to promoting gender equality (see Argument), which complies with the ethical principle of justice. It means that it is commonly recognized that women should not be deprived of their rights based on their gender. One more ethical aspect of the proposed solution is the principle of beneficence. According to the principle, any taken action should pursue bringing benefits to the target of the action. The proposed solutions are entirely built on this premise.
However, there are also possible negative outcomes. Incorporating social problems description into teaching materials may be misunderstood by learners for criticism or reproach. In this situation, illiteracy elimination programs participants’ autonomy is violated, as they find themselves disrespected or offended. Also, the ethical issue of non-maleficence is involved. In their endeavors, educators should avoid harming learners in any way. If harm is done, it is effectively considered a negative ethical outcome. In order to avoid it, the proposed solutions should be implemented after thorough analysis and research.
Another possible negative ethics outcome is that, with poorly designed programs, educators run a risk of putting ideas into their learners’ heads instead of providing them with effective skills of critical thinking and information processing and understanding. From the point of view of ethics, this is unacceptable because illiteracy elimination is about providing skills and abilities, not imposing opinions or worldviews. Another ethical aspect of this possible negative outcome is that an educator who loses the credibility by teaching suggestively instead of objectively compromises the knowledge he or she pursues to convey to the learners. Therefore, learning goals will not be achieved. A way to avoid this possible negative outcome is to approach designing adult illiteracy elimination programs with sensitivity and objectivity.
For adult illiteracy elimination programs, it is proposed to design them according to the concept of functional literacy, consider the vulnerable position of illiterate women, and address social issues of given communities in teaching materials. First, redefining literacy towards information processing and understanding rather than the ability to read and write will ensure better approaches to educating people for more successful performance within society. Second, targeting women in illiteracy elimination will promote gender equality, which has various positive effects on societies and economies. Third, raising social issues in educational materials will contribute to development by engaging learners in discussing solutions for improvements. Based on illiteracy elimination literature research, it is suggested that implementing proposed solutions will help create more effective adult illiteracy elimination programs.
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